by Sue Brennan
“Do you have a mobile phone?”
The young woman standing at the door looked at me, bewildered.
“Do you have a mobile phone?” I asked again, varying my inflection.
She looked to her left and right, where nobody stood to help her. I sighed and looked behind her through the screen-less window. The sun was low but still packing a punch. It was a fuzzy orange ball between the university’s grey concrete buildings.
“Cell phone?” I asked and made a finger-phone gesture to the side of my face. I couldn’t let her in the room until she answered the question. I held the digital recorder at chest level to catch her response. Other examiners—those who couldn’t be bothered with this kind of malarkey—just said, ‘Yes? Oh good. Please come in’.
“Do you have a mobile phone?” I asked, very, very slowly.
“My boyfriend?” she asked.
“Mobile phone. Phone!” I said, losing my patience. “Why on earth would I ask you about your boyfriend?”
This wasn’t the first time I’d had this response or even the second. I’d asked my co-workers, and I was the only one to which it happened.
“Gotta love that Aussie accent,” said one overweight, balding British man whose name I’ve since forgotten because he looked like so many others.
Paul? John? Who cares?
One of the assistants whose job it was to deliver the candidates to our door, came over and spoke to the woman in Mandarin.
“No,” the young woman said brightly. “No phone.”
“Thank you,” I said and stood aside. “Please come in.”
There was money to be made in China for the likes of me—available for a year, experience teaching English to adults, an undergraduate degree in something. Recent changes in Chinese regulations—having to go legit, basically—meant that the cohort of teachers moonlighting on the side as examiners for a large English language testing company had to commit to full-time examiner jobs or leave. The increase in the demand for examiners across the mainland meant that the number in-country wasn’t enough. The company recruited intensively to meet the demand.
Five years of university teaching in Japan interspersed with a year in Vietnam and a year in Indonesia had done nothing exciting for my savings. Being a single woman in her late forties, this lack of financial security had become something of an obsession. While I waited for my Chinese visa to be processed, I whiled away the time calculating how much I could save in a year if I lived in reasonably priced accommodation and didn’t overdo it on expat extravagances, like shooting over to Hong Kong every weekend.
I had an advantage over the eight that started at the same time as me—I was already an experienced examiner. We sat though induction sessions together and returned at the end of the day to the plush serviced apartments they were putting us up in for two weeks. While they sat through their training in the speaking and writing modules of the exam, I traipsed around Guangzhou looking for a place to live.
I tried to like it, honestly.
The oppressive heat—and it was only April—the omnipresent hawking of great, glistening globules of phlegm, the pushing to get on and then off trains, and the constant sound of at least six different games, music or YouTube videos being played on trains (I’ll never understand the aversion to earplugs), the wilful throwing of litter onto the street, all drove me to distraction by the end of the first week. Being stopped in the street by a group of young people for photographs—charming though their fascination with my hair was—wasn’t enough to alleviate the intense dislike I felt for the place.
Like a mantra, I kept thinking, they wouldn’t do this in Japan, they wouldn’t do this in Japan…
“And what shall I call you?”
This question, optional at the beginning of the exam after the candidate stated their full name, offered a delightful insight into the Chinese-psyche. First, there were the who’s-been-reading-Jane Austen set—Jessica, Ignatius, Elizabeth, Stephen. Then there were the hippies—Forest, Rain, Spring, Summer, Moon, Cloud. Many people, mostly female, saw their English-speaking persona as a colour, Purple being a popular choice (I imagined myself interviewing Prince), but also Green, Silver and Gold. Then there were the inexplicable choices—Echo being the one that comes to mind because there were so many of them. The hands-down winner, though—and I’m glad it wasn’t one of my candidates because I would’ve wet myself—was a young man who wanted to be called Joey Tribbiani.
It led me to wonder what I’d call myself, given the opportunity.
“Hi, my name is Sue, but my Japanese name is Yama. It means mountain. I like mountains.”
And why did the Chinese feel the need to take on an English name once they started learning English? I hadn’t come across this in Japan, Vietnam or Indonesia. I met a Chinese woman via a meet-up group who had an Italian and an English name. Perhaps it helped. Perhaps it eased that terrifying journey into another language and culture. Perhaps I’d feel more confident as Yama speaking Japanese or Claudette speaking French.
They were long and tedious days, doing twenty interviews with five minutes or so between each. We amused ourselves however we could.
“And what shall I call you?”
Part of my contract involved testing in Guangzhou at one of three universities, or cities within South-East China—Changsha, Nanning, Xiamen—accessed by plane or train. When working locally, the only way for me to access the three testing venues was by taxi. That meant getting out onto the main road early and hailing every taxi that went by while keeping an eye out for people who stood a little further up the road than me. Taxis would often slow down, look at me and drive on. Some stopped, looked at the address I showed them and drove off as if I’d asked them to take me to the home of their enemy. Once, in torrential rain, angling my umbrella this way and that trying to keep myself and a small suitcase dry, the fifth taxi driver looked at my address and said no.
“Why?” I asked angrily. “Why?”
He shook his head. I slammed the door shut and kicked the side of the car.
I got to work and relayed my story to the other examiners as they eventually washed up, each with a tale about their travails. Some of the long-timers, ones with Chinese wives who basically functioned as personal assistants, had drivers. The rest of us had to fend for ourselves, often getting taken to the wrong place, over-charged, or given forged notes in change. One examiner suggested that next time, rather than slamming the door, I should just leave it open and walk away. The driver would have to get out to close it. Brilliant! I never found myself quite so piqued again but stored it away.
The more I heard about other people’s taxi nightmares, the more anxious I became whenever I had to use one. One female examiner, Linda, arriving late at night in Nanning, had a taxi driver take her for a joy ride, stopping to pick up some woman. The two of them sat in the front and laughed at her until she was finally taken to the hotel. Linda refused to pay him and got the hotel concierge to deal with it. Another examiner, male, arrived home late after flying into Guangzhou. He was told the meter was broken and that he owed more than he knew the price to be. He got out of the taxi, offered the correct amount, and a crowd of men gathered around him. He was struck on the head and back.
Once, four of us arrived at an airport. A co-worker who spoke Mandarin well—let’s call him Crazy Kev—jumped in the front seat, told the driver our hotel and told him to turn the meter on. The driver took off, ignoring demands for the meter to be turned on. Then, Crazy Kev demanded he pull over. Meanwhile, another taxi came up alongside us. Crazy Kev had his hand on the handbrake, and the driver panicked and slowed down at the same time as Crazy-Kev pulled the brake. We scrambled out of the car, retrieved our suitcases, and got into the other taxi.
I became an angry emailer, sending them to whoever I could—this person in Guangzhou, or that person in Beijing—in an attempt to get a travel policy in place that got us to and from airports and hotels safely, rather than leaving us to fend for ourselves. What they had in place, leftover from the days of old, was a system whereby pick-ups were organised if there were at least three examiners. Where did that leave lone examiners—and yes, I did play the female card—who turned up in a strange city at one or two in the morning because the flights were always, always delayed? After one particularly harrowing test assignment, I decided I’d had enough. I sent an email stating that I would no longer do it, and that I was giving them fair warning not to send me. Other examiners would just call in sick. I found myself hauled up in front of some gormless supervisor, trying to defend myself, trying to reach a compromise, and utterly confused about why he just wasn’t getting it.
“Why can’t you just help us to do our jobs?” I asked. “You have a duty of care.”
“We are working hard on a travel policy, Susan, but bear with us. What if everyone did what you propose doing?”
Then, I suspect, we’d get what we want.
“It’s just not my piece of cake. Swimming is my real cup of tea.”
We were talking about team sports, and I continued on with the set of scripted questions thinking, is that right? If we don’t like something, do we say it’s not my piece of cake? The more I thought about it, the more I thought, yep, seems okay.
The problem was that in their quest to bag a high score, the candidates knew they had to produce some idiomatic vocabulary. Our guess, given the idioms we heard, was that the intensive test preparation classes they attended were using textbooks circa 1950. The challenge with idioms and colloquial language is keeping up with it. Show me an American or Australian sixteen-year-old kid these days who says something isn’t their cup of tea, and I’ll show you a kid who’s getting beaten up.
Everyone had a bestie, and everyone was a foodie. Broaden my horizon was busted out in almost every interview and on every writing test. There was no activity that couldn’t lead to a broadening of one’s horizons—talking with foreigners, travelling, playing sports, shopping, eating out. They wedged it in whenever and however they could, often with amusing variations: I want to expand my eyesight; it will stretch my eyes; it will broaden my horizontal. God bless them. Who could blame them for trying?
We conducted interview after interview, day after day, with people who had been drilled in how to take the test. They knew it inside out and many had taken it more than once. They had chunks of English memorised and ready to launch. Unfortunately, despite the security measures taken to keep the test confidential, test questions were all over the internet. After three straight days of testing, I felt incapable of conversation. We got fed up with the rehearsed answers faster than if we’d been testing less frequently. On out-of-town stints, we were exhausted with all the travel problems and late hotel check-ins. We called ourselves examinators.
Between tests and during breaks, we bitched about the monotony of it all. I participated wholeheartedly but withdrew when I heard examiners call a candidate stupid or retarded.
And how’s your Cantonese going, mate?
I’d tried and failed miserably to learn Mandarin. The company had given us ten free lessons when we arrived. I quickly remembered survival phrases and vocabulary and rules for verb conjugation. It’s just that nobody could understand me when I spoke. I managed with pictures of maps and addresses for testing locations on my phone that I showed to taxi drivers. I limited my vocal output to hello and thank you, hoping that I got those right, at least.
As time went by, I became a little more confident and challenged these offensive remarks.
“They’re not stupid,” I’d say. “This isn’t a test of their knowledge about shopping or sports or what their favourite bloody festival is.”
It didn’t win me any friends.
During the first two parts of the test, which were scripted, I’d ask the questions, listen to the response, and ask the next, all the while thinking of what I’d really like to say.
“I like urban life because of the hustle and the bustle,” one candidate said with all the intonation and joie de vivre of a flatlining heart monitor.
Do you? Do you really? Cause I kinda get the feeling that you’re just not that into it.
My first apartment was a fifty square foot, two-bedroom place on the 11th floor of a twenty storey building. With its floor to ceiling windows and mezzanine style main bedroom, it was much funkier than any of the little boxes I’d lived in in Japan. After my first night, I knew I’d made a mistake. The traffic outside was relentless. People stood outside my door, where there was a window they could blow smoke out of, and yelled on their mobile phones. Someone upstairs began making a hell of a noise in the wee hours, as though they were assembling a light aircraft. Night after night, I lay awake looking at the ceiling, wondering what the hell they were doing.
“There,” I said to my sister when we were Skyping one afternoon. “Do you hear that?”
tap, tap, tap, tap…tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap, tap…
She cocked her head and suggested that they might be cobblers.
At the end of that year, I moved into another apartment, bigger than the first one, with high hopes of finally getting a decent night’s sleep. Next door were children that liked to jump from the furniture at two in the morning. They also had a skateboard that they ran across the room and into the wall. Upstairs, a toddler was learning to walk by pushing a chair across the tiled floor.
I bought chair-socks at Daiso and stomped upstairs. A man, tiny and prune-like, stood in the stairwell smoking. He had a little tin pot stuffed with butts hung on a nail outside the door. Several days after moving in, construction started on the apartment directly beneath me. I learned from co-workers that when people move into a new apartment, they rip up the perfectly good tiles that were there and have new ones laid for good Feng-shui. So, not much in the way of sleep.
Meanwhile, we were making headway with the travel policy. Train tickets were purchased for us. We were given a choice, in some cases, of a shorter but inevitably delayed flight or a long train journey. Towards the end of my two-year stint, I was rarely flying. However, train travel was not without its own annoyances.
First, being in first class meant nothing other than two seats rather than three across. Of course, nobody wants to be stuck between two people watching a movie on their phones sans earphones. I considered buying them in bulk and distributing them amongst the passengers, as a steward would before a flight, but with less attention to friendliness. I was particularly attuned to the sound of someone clearing their throat, anticipating the gathering of phlegm into a ball, ready for expulsion (where?). Another bug-bear was that when it was time—finally, praise Jesus—to get off, men would light their cigarettes at the same instant their foot touched the platform. This meant that alighting after them involved knocking a year off my life expectancy. There would also be the pent-up phlegm. I won’t talk about the toilets.
After a week of interviews and travelling, it was a relief to walk to the office on Sunday to mark the writing tests. No taxi or public transport was needed, but brain-melting temperatures for eight months of the year made it unpleasant. No business attire was required, and we would come and go as we pleased as long as we got through the two hundred or so tests by Monday afternoon. Everyone had their method of getting through the pile of papers as quickly as possible: writing their examiner number on all the sheets at the start; wearing noise-cancelling headphones; pulling out the under-length papers first, or, happy days, the ones where no attempt had been made.
I wondered about those poor kids sweating and nervously tapping their pencils as they read and re-read the question, trying to make sense of it. In the interviews, a candidate’s nerves were painfully visible—the tremulous voice, the creeping blush up the neck, the dry mouth, the face glistening with perspiration. As with the speaking, the amount of memorised language that was regurgitated was astounding. It was also boring. Grammatically perfectly chunks of academic English—‘It is widely believed that…’, ‘It is the opinion of this writer that…’, ‘The number plummeted dramatically after…’—linking together often unintelligible sentences. I’d think, Jesus, what dross, and curse the preparation schools they attended. But I also knew that it was us—the privileged English speaking countries—who were leaving them little choice.
You want to come and study here? Fine —jump through this really fucking high and tiny hoop.
There were, however, gems that I remember still:
Tiananmen Square. It was big and serious.
The earth is suffering from infinite hurts.
Grandparents have spicy knowledge.
The last drop of water on earth will be the tear in your eye.
This will decrease the time for companying with lovers.
The accidental creative use of language delights me. These days, teaching freshman English in a Japanese university, it is rare to come across anything that makes me pause and smile. Maybe the stakes aren’t high enough. The closest I get are the occasional, unsolicited (believe me) emails in my junk box promising all manner of treats—‘zesty pictures of my delicious ass’ or ‘nights of sparkling disorder’. I wish I could have given those test-takers a pat on the back and thanked them for a reprieve from the monotony. I wish I could have told them, ‘What you wrote here? Right here? That’s how you use language.’
The train, all going well, would see me home, showered, and with a glass of wine in my hand by 7:30pm. I had what we called the golden ticket, which meant my last candidate was absent. I was able to get my pack checked out and my butt down to the station for the express train back to Guangzhou before my colleagues. I knew they were in the train behind me, carousing with beer and wine brought judiciously during the lunch break. I didn’t mind the break from their company. I had ‘Orange Is The New Black’ episodes to watch, my own little stash of snacks and wine, and, of course, headphones.
The battery on my phone was running low, and there was no USB port for charging it, even in first class. I turned it off. Estimating about thirty minutes left, I packed up my stuff and went and stood in the vestibule. Over the next ten minutes, others came and stood there too. Suddenly, the train lurched, screeched, and stopped. It took fifteen minutes before there was an announcement, and judging from the collective groans and frantic texting, it wasn’t good news. Looking through the window into the dark night, I saw we were surrounded by fields. I turned on my phone and texted on the group chat, ‘What the fuck’s happening?’ Some smart arse replied, ‘Train’s stopped, init?’ After about thirty minutes, a staff member came through the train yelling something that, again, didn’t seem like anything anyone wanted to hear. Some people followed her, and I wondered if I should too.
“Hey,” I called to her. “What’s happened?”
She turned to look at me, seemed about to say something, and then continued on her way through the carriage. I looked desperately around.
“Come on. Surely someone here can speak English?”
Somebody did, a young man, and he told me the train track was broken and, no, he did not know if it was getting fixed.
Then how am I going to get home? I screamed inside my head.
“Your English is good,” I told him by way of gratitude. “Did you study abroad?”
We chatted briefly. Perfunctorily. I can’t remember what he said.
An hour passed with no announcements. People walked back and forth through the train, looking annoyed. I relinquished my spot by the door and lugged my backpack and small wheelie bag into the toilet. It reeked of piss and tobacco. I didn’t sit. I leaned against the door and began panting for air as I considered the myriad of possible outcomes for a woman who had no functional Mandarin, no cell phone, no idea of where she was, no driver to pick her up at the other end, no co-workers to depend on, who found herself on a motionless train in China at night. I cried hard, silent sobs and, after twenty minutes, emerged.
I stood by the door, waiting for something to happen. I stared at my reflection while I waited, looking around occasionally, trying to interpret any change in mood or activity that might indicate …something. After another hour or so, the train creaked and began slowly moving. I was pathetically happy and cried some more.
It wasn’t too difficult to get a teaching job back in Japan. My two-year hiatus was forgiven with the explanation that I really missed being engaged with learners. It was utterly true. Examining full-time and living in China just wasn’t my cup of tea. They didn’t need to know about the panic attacks that I was beset with during the month home in Australia between the two jobs. They didn’t need to know the guilt I felt about losing empathy for candidates towards the end, and how I no longer saw them as individuals. The effort I’d put into learning Mandarin was abysmal, really. I’d had a few unsuccessful interactions and given up. I’d made zero effort to understand Chinese culture, and, understandably, my horizons weren’t broadened. They stayed exactly where they were.
Now, I live in a small but not too small apartment in Tokyo with my American boyfriend and two cats. We eat out two or three times a week. We watch Netflix. We enjoy our work. I prepare lessons, and I speak to students before and after class. Having lived in Japan for thirty years, my partner’s Japanese is invaluable in taking care of almost everything. He’s my personal assistant, though he doesn’t book drivers for me. The trains are frequent. People wanting to get on them wait for those who get off. People use headphones when they listen to something. I’ve heard men gathering up phlegm, but I’ve never seen anyone spitting. Smokers gather in the appointed areas. My sleeplessness these days is mostly due to the cats or too much wine. Overall, there is very little pain.